Sion Sono has acquired something of a reputation for controversy. His frequent denouncements of his nation’s cinema in which he sets himself up as a kind of “anti-Ozu” perhaps place him in line with the great 1960s iconoclast Nagisa Oshima who also proclaimed that his distaste for Japanese cinema extended to “absolutely all of it”. Funnily enough, The Sion Sono (園子温という生きもの, Sono Sion to Iu Ikimono) – a documentary exploring the director’s work, is helmed by Oshima’s son, Arata, though he is at pains to show a different side to the artist known as Sion Sono, keying in to the various aways his art reflects his life and vice versa.
Shot during 2015, the documentary follows the twin processes of the production of The Whispering Star (one of five films Sono would release that year), and a landmark art exhibition which led straight back to the director’s origins as an avant-garde street protestor with the performance art collective “Tokyo Gagaga”. These joint concerns perhaps highlight a minor conflict in Sono’s working life as he reveals during a casual conversation in referencing the “indecent” work that had been mostly occupying his time over the previous year. Expressing both fear and gratitude for finally gaining the opportunity to work a more personal project (the script for The Whispering Star had been written almost 20 years previously), Sono jokes that he’ll finally be getting “clean” only to immediately relapse by making The Virgin Psychics – the big screen adaptation of a sci-fi TV series he had also directed which largely consisted of lewd juvenile humour.
To rewind slightly, Sion Sono had been making films for almost 20 years before getting mainstream festival attention in the early 2000s with Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table. His profile was further enhanced by the international success of serial killer thriller Cold Fish and the Venice recognition of Himizu even if it’s the 4-hour epic and sleeper cult hit Love Exposure which has become synonymous with his name for many Western viewers. In the opening to camera interview, Sono is asked about his “controversial” image and overseas success to which he laments that Japanese audiences are wary of anything unconventional and particularly allergic to the “wacky Japan” tag that often dogs attempts to sell Japanese media overseas. Unorthodox views or ways of working are unwelcome, as are those who live in unorthodox ways.
Perhaps for these reasons, 2015 saw Sono diving headfirst into the populist with mixed results. Avowing at a press conference that he believes in “quantity over quality”, Sono commits himself to simply making films hoping some of them might turn out OK. Thus his more straightforwardly commercial projects, Shinjuku Swan for example, are often filled with unconventional ideas but perhaps lack the sense of attack found in his more potent work, covering a lack of substance with intentional boldness. The Whispering Star, as we see, brings him full circle. Picking up the Tarkovskian influences seen in one of his most impressive early features – the sadly neglected The Room, the minimalist sci-fi drama also encompasses his compassion for the people of Fukushima whose ongoing strife has become a recurrent concern from the ruined landscapes of Himizu to the more directly political Land of Hope.
It’s this essential sense of compassion which Oshima’s documentary seems keenest to capture. Through in person interviews with some of Sono’s frequent collaborators including Himizu’s Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido who characterise the director as an eccentric uncle, and his actress wife Megumi Kagurazaka (the lead in Whispering Star) who breaks down in tears remembering the sometimes difficult days of their earlier collaborations, Sono’s art emerges less as an attack on a conservative society than an exercise in melancholy sarcasm that, at heart, believes the world can be better than it is. A friend of his puts this quality best when she (part correcting herself for triteness) states that despite his sometimes controversial approach, she believes he just wants everyone to be happy and is attempting to transcend his own ideas in order to cut through to something new.
Then again perhaps Sono puts this best himself in accidentally citing a life philosophy. Art is not about good and bad; life is not about good and bad. “Paint! Express! Live!” – what better encapsulation of an artist’s credo could there be?
Released by Third Window Films as part of a double feature pack with The Whispering Star.
International trailer (English subtitles)